Ninety-two years ago yesterday, Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of V1, the first star anyone had ever seen in a galaxy beyond the Milky Way. Called “the most important star in the history of cosmology,” it turned our world upside down.
Piers Sellers died on Dec. 23rd at the age of 61. Vera Rubin died two days later. She was 88. Both were scientists who spent a lot of time out among the stars, an experience that made them feel humble about humankind’s place in the vast cosmos, stunned by the beauty of the earth and, and yet ever hopeful.
Sellers, a naturalized American citizen who made three trips to the Atlantis space shuttle, died less than a year after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He spent much of that year trying to awaken people to the reality of global warming.
Still, he said of his short life and looming death, “I’ve no complaints. As an astronaut I spacewalked 220 miles above the Earth. . . .I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.”
Rubin was an astronomer who looked out from the earth as far into the cosmos as she could see. She saw so far that she realized that most of what was out there – literally millions of other galaxies – was invisible to her. “I’m sorry I know so little,” she once said. “I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”
Far from being the center of the universe, we are infinitesimal, fleeting blips on a vast cosmic screen. And yet, for Rubin and Sellers, that fact is not a reason for despair, but for hope, even fun. In these times of strutting egomania, perhaps realizing how small we really are is the first step toward wisdom.
“Each one of you can change the world,” Rubin told the 1996 graduating class at Berkeley, “for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.”
Happy New Year.